Just like the character of Arlecchino in its current production, Detroit’s Hilberry Theatre is also “The Servant of Two Masters.” But while the comical buffoon needs only to satisfy his bosses, Wayne State University’s Department of Theatre must offer its graduate students a challenging learning environment in which to earn their master’s degrees, while producing shows that donors and theatergoers alike will support. It’s not an easy balance to maintain, since the shows the theater traditionally stages – Shakespeare and the classics – aren’t necessarily what today’s much-sought-after young(er) audiences are clamoring to see. But the winds of change have been blowing across the campus of late, and with them has arrived a wildly silly and energetic production that I suspect is the most fun the Hilberry Company and its opening night audience have had on Cass Avenue in many years!
And possibly one of the most physically demanding!
Adapted by James R. Tompkins from the 1743 comedy by Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni, “The Servant of Two Masters” tells the story of Arlecchino (Jason Cabral), a servant who arrives in Venice with his master, Federigo Rasponi (Sara Hymes) – or so everyone believes. In actuality, it’s Federigo’s sister, Beatrice, who comes in disguise to secretly collect two things: the dowry promised her brother by Pantalone dei Bisognosi (Christopher R. Ellis), whose daughter, Clarice (Lorelei Sturm), he was supposed to wed; and Florindo (Jordan Whalen), her lover who recently killed her brother in a spat. To add to the confusion, Florindo also shows up in search of Beatrice, and sensing an opportunity to earn twice the income, Arlecchino secretly becomes his servant, as well. And as you can probably guess, mayhem quickly ensues.
Comedies about mistaken identity have long been popular with playwrights and theatergoers alike, and Goldoni’s script – refreshed by Tompkins and given local color by the Hilberry Company – is packed with all of the typical antics found in the 16th century form of Italian theater called Commedia dell’Arte. A highly stylized and physical type of theater, the actors are masked and rely on their voices, gestures and movement to tell the story. Each actor plays a specific “stock” character – the buffoon, the miser, the lovers, etc. – and the story is moved along with plenty of slapstick, bawdiness and sight gags.
It’s not all fun and games, however, as Commedia demands precision from a disciplined troupe of performers skilled in athletics and a wide variety of the performing arts, including swordplay, tumbling and character development.
It also requires a director who is intimately familiar with the style, and Lavinia Hart, director of the Hilberry’s MFA acting program, more than meets that requirement. Everything about the production moves like clockwork – from the superbly entertaining scene changes starring the Zanies to the amazing banquet-clean-up scene – which belies the seemingly frantic, fourth-wall busting nature of the genre.
But it’s Hart’s thoroughly engaging ensemble that especially shines. This is teamwork at its finest, and everyone in the cast is integral to the show’s success.
Sturm throws one of best temper tantrums you’ll ever see, while Safiya Johnson as innkeeper Mama Grisanti sizzles with her line delivery. And Christina Flynn once again stands out as the tough-talking maid, Columbina. (She’ll be missed after she’s graduated from the program this spring.)
But it’s Cabral who creates the most memorable character. Arlecchino’s every gesture, every step and every vocal inflection is carefully planned and executed – the result of which is yet another excellent performance this season from this versatile actor.
Costumes by Cara Ward and the period-appropriate set by Christopher Otwell add to the production’s overall ambiance.
‘The Servant of Two Masters’
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Performed in repertory through March 27. $25-$30. 313-577-2972. http://www.wsushows.com